Tales of the Gray Lady and other great Virginia ghosts.
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photo courtesy of Tuckahoe Plantation; illustration by Chien Suédois
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The Executive Mansion circa 1800.
In 1977, just weeks after Tad and Sue Thompson moved into the manor house at Tuckahoe Plantation, Sue was awakened one night by strange sounds.
Spooky stories had circulated about the old house 10 miles west of Richmond, whose construction by one of the earliest of the illustrious Randolphs of Virginia was completed around 1713. Thomas Jefferson spent his boyhood in the handsome clapboard mansion, and while generations of Randolphs lived there guests included George Washington, James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Tad’s grandmother, Isabelle Ball Baker, purchased the home in 1935 from the last generation of the Randolphs to live on the property, and lived there until the 1960s.
But when Tad and Sue moved in, they claim to have heard none of the other-worldly tales. “When my brother and some college friends lived out here a few years before we did, they found the place kind of lonely and moved back to Richmond,” says Tad. “They never said anything about it being ‘haunted.’”
It could be they didn’t wait around long enough. The night Sue’s sleep was disturbed, she first thought she might be dreaming, but the dream—if a dream it was—was too vivid. When she realized she really was awake, she turned to Tad.
“Do you hear that?” she whispered.
“Yeah,” Tad said. “I do.”
What they heard, from the central hall downstairs, was a party in progress. “There was laughter, the clinking of glasses, the murmur of voices,” says Sue. “You could tell that the ‘guests’—whoever or whatever they were—were having a good time.”
Maybe so, but no one else was in the house, or should have been. The Thompsons didn’t have children then (they would later raise their four children at Tuckahoe), and their farm manager lived a quarter mile down the road. Understandably perturbed, Tad started down the narrow staircase to investigate. As he descended, the party—or at least the noise—stopped.
Ever since, when Tad is away, Sue keeps a radio or some other background noise going. “This is a very old house,” she says. “It creaks and groans all the time. But ghosts don’t weigh anything, do they?”
For generations, owners of some of Virginia’s great houses, like the Thompsons, rather than being embarrassed or frightened by these experiences, have taken a certain pride in the lore of their properties. They accept these apparitions that make their presence known by, say, the sound of errant footsteps or appearing in an upstairs window just long enough to be noticed—and then vanishing.
They are the coquettes of the spirit world, distinguishable more by their tendency to tease us mere mortals than anything else. Colin Wilson, a popular writer on such subjects, has determined the chief characteristic of ghosts to be an apparent “feeble-mindedness” since their determination to aimlessly “hang around places they knew in life” leaves the definite impression “that they ought to have something better to do.” This is unkind, if not exactly inhumane. It also underestimates the appeal of Virginia’s plantations, with their magnolias and their boxwood. It does not do justice to places such as Tuckahoe, where spectral visitors can stay more or less forever while somebody else pays the estate and property taxes and upkeep on all the old outbuildings.
Since the Thompsons broke up the party in their parlor, their encounters with the spirit world—and those of their friends—have continued. A maid helping Sue move furnishings into the attic one hot August afternoon found her return to their staircase impeded by a frigid wall of mist that they had to pass through to get back downstairs. Another friend would hear a child’s plaintive cries in Sue’s garden. The pathway through the garden has for years been known as the Ghost Walk; Virginians at least since the 1800s have said they have seen a “Gray Lady” floating around the garden and the graveyard.
Sherwood forest in Charles City County has its Gray Lady, too. When Payne Tyler, the wife of Harrison Tyler, a grandson of President John Tyler, first moved to Sherwood Forest in 1974, she was unaware of the mansion’s spectral inhabitants, even if well acquainted with the plantation’s storied past. It was built around 1720, and President Tyler and his descendants have lived there ever since, more or less. While restoring the James River mansion, Paynie, as friends call her, now 83, moved into the house before her husband did and slept for some weeks on a pallet. “One night I became aware of someone entering my room, walking up to where I was sleeping, looking at me, and then disappearing,” she says. “The first night this happened, I jumped up and ran through the woods to a house where one of my husband’s cousins was living. He sat me down, made me a stiff drink, and said, ‘So you’ve met the Gray Lady!’ Once the sun was about to come up, this prince of a man walked me back through the woods to the house.”
Other such encounters followed—with the ghost, that is. “I told it to leave me alone, but of course it didn’t listen,” says Mrs. Tyler. Once, when brushing her teeth, she saw it flit past the open bathroom door. “It likes opening and closing doors,” she says. “It also likes rocking in rocking chairs.” Mrs. Tyler had long since come to accept its presence, but her husband would have none of it. “He didn’t take it seriously at all,” she says. But one morning, she found him sitting in the kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee. “He was positively ashen,” she says. “He was nervously tearing up tiny pieces of paper, shredding them. He looked up and said, ‘Last night I saw the Gray Lady,’ and that is all he would say.”
Jim B. Tucker, M.D., a child psychologist with the University of Virginia’s department of psychiatry and neurobiological sciences and director of its division of perceptual studies, has conducted extensive research on children who tell their parents of “past life” memories. He has studied “hundreds of these cases,” and written about them in scholarly journals as well as more popular works, including Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives, published in 2005, and Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, published in 2013.
“I am not commenting one way or another about ‘ghosts’ or their reality,” says Tucker. “I have done no research into that and wouldn’t presume to make any conclusive statements. But I think it is fair to say there are phenomena that challenge the underlying assumptions of materialism and that strongly indicate that some form of consciousness survives the death of the brain. Everyone is free to come to their own conclusions about what this might signify, but we should all be open to the possibilities.”
He will say this too: “As for ‘ghosts,’ it is interesting that the guests of a bed-and-breakfast, say, will year after year ask the proprietor about that bearded man they saw in the hallway, and how it seems to ‘fit’ with some person who died on the property. Whatever that means, I just don’t know.”
Are these wraiths evil or benevolent? Some sensible people accept the presence of their ectoplasmic houseguests and come to regard them almost as guardian angels.
That is not the term Anne Holton uses, but she has taken a certain solace in the presence of another Gray Lady, this one in Virginia’s Executive Mansion. Holton, 57, who is now Virginia’s secretary of education, has lived there twice—as a child when her father, Linwood Holton, was governor from 1970 to 1974, and as an adult when her husband, Tim Kaine, had the job from 2006 to 2010. Eerie goings-on at the mansion date back centuries. Gov. Holton has spoken of coming downstairs of a morning to find portraits that hung on the walls the night before face down on the floor.
But Secretary Holton remembers how, in 1972, Hurricane Agnes plunged much of downtown Richmond into pitch darkness. “This was before backup generators, and there was no electricity, period,” she recalls. “There were no lights in the mansion—except one.” Somehow, without rational explanation, one remained lit for several days running. “And this was the light from a maybe 30-foot high ceiling over that steep, narrow staircase we always used to reach the private living quarters. That can be a dangerous staircase, especially for children, and we took comfort in the idea that the Gray Lady was looking out for us and making sure we were safe.”
It is of course rare for anyone to catch more than a glimpse of these phantasms, which is what makes what happened at Tuckahoe in the early 1990s remarkable. That’s when a guest of the Thompsons, today a real estate agent in Massachusetts, took a picture of a ghost. She wasn’t intending to take a picture of a ghost, but it showed up nonetheless, which suggests that this particular ghost, anyway, understands as well as you and I the contemporary concept of the photobomb.
I first saw the picture—or a photocopy of it—toward the end of the ’90s, when it was still fresh. Tad Thompson kept a copy, and when he first obtained it, one could clearly make out the face of a blonde-haired woman with blue eyes, wearing the kind of bonnet that might have driven, say, James Madison, absolutely mad with desire. He showed me the photo again last summer, and the image had faded still more, the likeness of the woman in the fetching hat seeming to retreat, eventually—I suspect—to vanish altogether.
But that’s the way with ghosts, isn’t it? They never cooperate when you want to prove their existence. I guess if they did, they’d be something else altogether—and not nearly so much fun.